When I was just starting out as a reporter, a gruff old metro desk editor told me that political investigations and corporate exposés are all well and good, but dog stories sell the newspaper.
A lot has changed since then — today, cat photos drive the Web traffic — but animals remain a staple of journalism, and of storytelling in general. I’ve written about ambassador wallabies and blue-blooded bullmastiffs and dumpster-diving bears, and a beloved saddle horse whose owner chose to amputate her own damaged leg rather than quit riding him for good.
Veteran news reporters accept these assignments with a roll of the eyes, trudging out of the newsroom with the tragic air normally reserved for covering the weather. It’s true that nobody wins a Pulitzer Prize this way. Most “creature features” are classic journalistic ephemera: my newspaper piece about a championship shark-fishing tournament, which entailed learning how best to dodge the thrashing tail of a 13-foot shark hauled alive over the side of a boat, was no doubt destined to become wrapping for fish fillets. My tearjerker about frostbitten stray cats likely wound up lining somebody’s litter box.
And yet animal subjects have always been among my favorites, and over the years I learned, and am still learning, how to sensibly cover nonhuman entities. I’m not alone in my fondness: many types of writers “thirst after what is pure and other and inhuman in the animals,” in the words of the poet Larry Levis
. Of course, this mysterious “purity” must also allow for nuance. Pets and other domestic animals may seem like low-hanging fruit, but in fact, they are often especially difficult to characterize. Their superficial familiarity obscures what is alien and animal and most interesting about them.
For objectivity’s sake, it’s better to begin with a creature that you’ve never shared a bedroom with, like a jellyfish, or perhaps a rattlesnake — the subject of one of my first newspaper assignments when I was a cub reporter in upstate New York.
“John McDonough’s hearing is gone,” I began. “Unfortunately, he lives on the end of Rattlesnake Way. The end that rattles.”
This was a profile of a deaf 77-year-old snake lover who painted the tails of local rattlers bright red so neighbors would stop shooting them. There was nothing cuddly or comfortable about the interview. I remember watching the elderly man’s hands shake as he held out the swerving serpents for my inspection, via a long, curved stick called a snake hook. His control over these creatures was limited at best. Would he stumble? Would they strike?
Despite my unease, the rattlesnake piece ultimately ran as an animal “rescuer” story, the commonest of newspaper clichés. I wrote so many over the years. One lady ran an animal shelter exclusively for guinea pigs, which she fattened on parsley and watermelon, while another waged war on deer hunters, feeding antibiotic-laced apples to wounded bucks. I interviewed whooping crane keepers who disguised themselves in elaborate bird costumes to keep their human identities a secret, until many of their endangered charges flapped out of their enclosures one night during a blizzard and died.
Yet none of these stories, at the end of the day, were really about the animals. They were about people, how we treat animals and by extension, what we value, damage, and adore. Some were entertaining, though the human characters often became over-simplified saviors or villains, as did the animals — they were usually furry or feathered “good guys” with the rare cameo (during rabies season, for instance) as “bad guys.”
Pets and other domestic animals may seem like low-hanging fruit, but in fact, they are often especially difficult to characterize. Their superficial familiarity obscures what is alien and animal and most interesting about them.
When I left newspapers to become a wildlife writer at Smithsonian
magazine, I finally had to write about the animals themselves, and it was difficult. My first big feature explored a mysterious salmon die-off in the Pacific Northwest. Not only were there precious few human characters to use as narrative crutches; there weren’t too many salmon around, either. The slithery little hatchlings that I managed to track down at a fish farm didn’t leave a powerful impression. “This needs a little something,” said my editor, frowning over my first draft. Like… garlic salt? My subject was, literally, a cold fish.
The first and most important step was to discard my idea of animals as proverbial “good guys” or helpless agents in need of human saving. Scientists, delightfully disenchanted, helped me do this. In Tanzania I cooed over Serengeti lions, which I considered to be the most gorgeous, moving, and sympathetic of all beasts because they bore more than a passing resemblance to my darling orange pet cat, Cheetoh. But one lion researcher disagreed: “I’d rather study termites.” Termites, he explained, have much shorter life cycles, which makes it easier to track evolutionary patterns over successive generations. Plus, termites are busy, industrious creatures, whereas lions are motionless slugabeds, horribly boring to observe.
It’s not that there’s no room for romance and even anthropomorphism in animal stories — we animal writers are humans, after all. But there has to be biological scaffolding. The best way to get this is by experiencing the animal’s natural environment in an intimate way. This may mean hopping on a snowmobile or a submarine, or going much further, like the writer and veterinarian Charles Foster
, who spent six weeks living as a badger, eating worms and roadkill. Even then, when the reporting’s through, an animal writer must concede — as Foster ultimately does — that other species are in some way unknowable.
It wasn’t until recently that I felt ready to cover an animal whose habitat is also my own house. But as soft and fuzzy as domestic cats may initially seem, The Lion in the Living Room
presented a major journalistic challenge, since I hoped to simultaneously draw from the two schools of animal-writing: using the strange story of house cats’ rise to global dominance as a means to understand humanity’s vast environmental influence and — more importantly — as a narrative end unto itself. Rather than snuggling my subjects close, I tried to keep house cats at arm’s length, like termites or red-painted rattlers, to be handled with snake hooks and trembling hands — the better to see them for the exquisite conquerors they really are.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a correspondent for Smithsonian
magazine, where she has covered a wide range of topics from vampire anthropology to bioluminescent marine life to the archaeology of ancient beer. Her work has been featured in the Best American Science and Nature Writing
series and recognized by the National Academy of Sciences. Tucker lives in Connecticut. The Lion in the Living Room
is her first book.